Embracing Struggle

One of my all time favorite movies is The Princess Bride. It’s full of excellent quotes, incredible satire, and wonderful acting. In the past I’ve had a few Princess Bride quoting duels with friends that eventually dissolve into giggling to the point of tears. Recently I followed Cary Elwes (who plays Westley/Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie) on Twitter, and he has been posting some of his best lines from Princess Bride. Yesterdays was, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

After a chuckle where I remembered the scene from the movie where Westley performs this witticism, I started thinking about struggle. Often, it seems that people are living life to minimize struggle and maximize pleasure. Advertising campaigns center around presenting a problem that people might identify with, and then showing how their product can solve it. Overweight? Well, try this pill. Dirty floor? Well, try this cleaning product. Frizzy hair? Buy this hair product and your problem is solved.

When hard times hit, as they definitely have in 2020, people tend to look forward to a time when the struggle ends and life goes back to being easier. When there is illness, people look for cures. When relationships get rocky, people look for ways to smooth them out.

Clearly, avoiding struggle is part of human nature. Often, I hear parents saying that they don’t want to their children to struggle the way that they did, and then they do their utmost to make life as easy as possible for their children.

While I understand the instinct to protect, and to seek ease, I wonder about the wisdom of this philosophy. Having had my share of hard times, I can tell you that struggle has led to the most growth in my life, the most self-reflection, the most fruitful changes.

An abusive marriage and ugly divorce led to my going back to school and becoming a psychotherapist. A terrible illness led to my journey into authorship, blogging and podcasting. A painful breakup led to intense spiritual growth and a desire to invest in learning about music and another language. When the fires of struggle show up, if we can embrace them instead of fight, they can forge us from a raw metal into a weapon of great strength and beauty.

On the other hand, we’ve all encountered people who are the product of too much ease and too little struggle. We joke that they were “born with a silver spoon in their mouths.” These people tend to be arrogant in their own ignorance of what it is to do hard work–what it is to truly struggle. Often they seem to look down on people who don’t have it as easy as they do, and seem to think it’s some kind of moral failing on their part that the world is harder on them. We call these people who haven’t struggled things like “entitled,” “immature,” and “green.”

Deep down we know that people need struggle to become fully-formed human beings, but we still do our best to dodge it at every turn, and to shield our children from it. We look at celebrities and wealthy people, who we imagine live a life of ease (although this is not actually true), and we think how wonderful it would be to live those lives, leading to even more discontent with the struggles of every-day living.

I would like to advocate for a change in attitude. Instead of looking down on people who are struggling and envying those who have a vapid and overly easy existence, I suggest that we embrace struggle as the transformational process that it is. I suggest that instead of thinking, “Aww . . . poor thing. She/He is really struggling right now,” we think “Wow. That person is really in the forge of the fires of struggle. I wonder what the finished product will be.”

It’s OK to be struggling. It’s a part of life. If your kid is having a hard time with distance learning, that’s OK. Working through that struggle, helps your child to learn how to deal with adversity. Most of us are struggling in some way with the pandemic. Perhaps the struggle is isolation, or joblessness, or fear of infection. Maybe it’s all of these together. And, yes, it is hard, but instead of denying or fighting the reality of your circumstances, I suggest that you ask yourself, “What are the lessons that I could learn from this time in my life?”

Now, I’m definitely not advocating for a “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. That’s one of my top ten most hated phrases. What are bootstraps, anyway? And how am I supposed to pull myself up with them? No. Instead, treat yourself and others with compassion. Support the people in your life as they support you in return. We need each other, and there is no shame in that.

I’m saying that struggle is not something to hide from or be ashamed of. It is not something to apologize for. Each person’s individual struggle can be like a personal hero’s journey. Every hero starts out naive and untested, and then is strengthened by adversity. Nobody is born heroic.

I think it would be appropriate to end with a quote that was brought to my attention by Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly. I think it captures this idea of embracing the formative quality of struggle perfectly: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat,” Theodore Roosevelt.

The Importance of Belonging Instead of Just Fitting In

Depressed people often tell me that they spend most of their time pretending to be happy. They feel that they must–that it’s expected of them. They say that they are exhausted by keeping up the pretense of cheerfulness, and that it feels like a mask that they wear to fool the people around them into thinking that they’re “normal.”

Every time someone tells me that they wear a mask of cheerful pretense, the Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby pops into my head:

“Eleanor Rigby
Picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window
Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?”

Clearly this sense of wearing a mask to fool the world is not new or isolated. In fact, I would bet that we all have done it from time to time. Some of us are better at it than others. Personally, I’m terrible at it. When I try to pretend, I come off as cold and stiff, and everyone knows that I’m not acting normally.

Susan David, in her TED Talk, “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage,” says that “being positive has become a new form of moral correctness.” She calls this “a tyranny of positivity.” I agree with her. Somehow pretending to be happy is seen as better than living an authentically felt life, and people are shamed for being “negative,” or displaying emotions seen as “bad.” As a result, people walk around wearing happy faces, but feeling dead inside.

You may wonder, what’s bad about pretending to be happy? Isn’t that the point of “fake it ’till you make it?” The answer is that pretending to be happy cuts us off from authentically connecting with other people, and authentic connection is one of the greatest and most basic needs of human beings.

Below is a picture of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which came up regularly in my college psychology courses. Starting from the bottom of the chart, you’ll see the most basic human needs for food, shelter, water, and clothing. Once those are satisfied, the next level is for safety. Directly after basic survival and safety comes love and belonging, including a sense of connection. Connection is not a luxury–something that might be nice to have one day. Connection is number 3 on the hierarchy of human needs. It’s that important.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a scalable vector illustration on white background

However, there is a big difference between belonging and fitting in. Fitting in happens when people conform in order to be accepted into a group. Fitting in is that lonely feeling of wearing a face that you keep in a jar by the door. It’s the exhaustion that you feel after pretending to be happy all day when you want to cry on the inside. Fitting in does not fill that basic need for connection. Instead, it makes us feel even more lonely than being alone.

Belonging, on the other hand, is the feeling of ease that you have with a trusted friend. Belonging is the knowledge that it’s OK to show your authentic feelings, because the person that you’re with will understand and will continue to support and love you. It’s only in belonging that the basic need for a sense of connection is fulfilled.

In order to have true belonging, it’s necessary to be vulnerable, and while the idea of vulnerability may be so uncomfortable that it immediately makes you want to stop paying any attention to what I’m saying, please stay with me. This is important.

In her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brene Brown explains that “in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen.” In order to feel that authentic connection that is one of our basic human needs, we have to be able to take off the mask, stop pretending to be happy when we aren’t, and show our true faces. The longer that you’ve been pretending, the more vulnerable this will make you feel.

When I work with clients on their need to belong, they often tell me that the idea of not pretending is preposterous, and that there is no way that they would allow themselves to be so vulnerable. I tell them that the fact that they had such a strong reaction tells me that vulnerability and the ability to be authentic is where the true work is for them. If you’ve had a strong reaction to the idea of being more authentically vulnerable with people, the same goes for you.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you go around telling your deepest darkest secrets to everyone you meet. Being vulnerable with people is a process. It doesn’t happen all at once. If there is someone that you think you might like to get closer with, reveal something small to them and see if they can handle it, and if they share something small with you in return. If so, try sharing something a little bit more personal, and so on. Creating true connection takes time, and you should only share your most personal stories with people who have earned the right, and have shown you that they are worthy. This is the way to build authentic connection with people who are safe.

Will there be times that you will pick the wrong person and get hurt? Of course there will be. However, building belonging in your life is worth the risk.

Belonging heals. In tribal cultures, when a member of the group is sick, the entire community takes part in the healing. The whole group comes out and dances around the fire, sings, or talks with the sick person. While these treatments aren’t necessarily scientific, people often do get well simply because the entire group showed up for them. Can you imagine how it would feel if your entire community showed up for you when you needed them?

Because so many people in Western culture confuse fitting in with belonging, and refuse to take the scary step towards vulnerability, the power of authentic belonging has eroded. When people are depressed or sick, they tend to end up more isolated than they were before their illnesses, and their isolation makes them sicker.

I would like to challenge you to examine your relationships. How many of them are based on fitting in and how many are based on true belonging and authentic connection? If you don’t have many authentic relationships, take the leap into vulnerability with the people that you feel have earned the right to it, and start building true belonging into your life. You’ll be glad that you did.

Let Us Put Light Around it: A Way to Cope with Pain

It’s only dusk and I can already hear fireworks going off in the distance for Independence Day–the day in which citizens of the United States celebrate winning the war against England for the right to govern themselves.  It is seen by many as a day to celebrate the independent spirit, the rights of the individual, and freedom of religion and thought.  And yet, many do not have the freedom that the United States claims to value.

This lack shows up in many ways; some large and some small.  This past week I was reminded that I don’t have the freedom to make my own decisions about how I handle my work because I am an employee of a large corporation.  The reminder left me shaken,  and with an anxiety in my chest that took my breath away.  Whenever an emotion creates an overwhelming sensation in my body, I remember a line from a book in Margaret Atwood’s Madd Addam series.

If you’ve never heard of Margaret Atwood, you probably have heard of one of her most famous books, The Handmaid’s Tale, which has become a hit series on Hulu as well as a symbol of the importance of combating misogyny.  The Madd Addam series tackles a different social problem–the human destruction of the earth.  Some of the characters end up becoming members of a fictional group known as God’s Farmers, who form an earth friendly and sustainable commune.  Whenever things go wrong in the story, the leader of the God’s Farmers says “Let us put light around it.”

Let us put light around it.

Those words stuck with me long after reading Madd Addam, and I started using them in my own life.  As I struggled with anxious chest pains last week, I closed my eyes and imagined the pain surrounded by a healing, white light.  Slowly, the pain began to shrink, and eventually nothing was left of it except for a ball of white light in my chest.

While this technique is highly effective inside my own body, putting light around it doesn’t necessarily change things out in the world.  However, it does change how I feel about them.  So, I thought I might devote this blog post to putting light around the intensely difficult experience of the world in 2020, in the hopes that it might change how we all feel about it.

First, let us put light around a deadly global pandemic that has killed over 500,000 humans throughout the world.  Let us put light around those grieving for their dead family members and friends.  Let us put light around the sick.  Let us put light around health care providers who risk their lives every day to help those suffering from this deadly disease.  Let us also put light around the people who have lost their jobs due to the quarantine, and those who are afraid about how they are going to pay their rent or mortgage, and how they are going to feed their families.  Let us put light around the lonely people who haven’t had any true human contact for months.

As I write these words there are tears in my eyes for so much suffering, and yet imagining light around these problems does seem to ease the pain a little.

Let us also put light around a social system that doesn’t offer the same opportunities to everyone, and that often works to block people from succeeding based upon the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexual orientation.  Let us put light around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and so many others who were killed due to the racism inherent in the system.  Let us put light around the families and friends of those who have been murdered.  Let us put light around a police force that is having to face itself and ask hard questions about how to change.  Let us put light around the people who have risked their own safety to go out and protest the injustice in the system.  They have been heard, and we are grateful for their voices.

Let us put light around those who are dealing with sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence and sex trafficking.  Let us put light around a social system that is biased towards the abusers–a system where rape kits–representing the most horrible day in thousands of women’s lives go unprocessed.  Let us put light around a system where rape victims find it almost impossible to get justice–a system where, instead, these victims often find themselves accused of lying, or of trying to get attention.  Let us put light around a society where women who are beaten by their partners are asked what they did to deserve it, and told to stop provoking the beatings.  Let us put light around 16-year-old Chrystul Kizer, who killed the man who was sex trafficking her, and now faces life in prison.  Let us put light around the abusers, the misogynists, the traffickers, and the rapists in hopes that they can see the error of their ways.

Let us put light around a medical system that often seems to be more about profit than about treatment.  Let us put light around the patients seeking help who are turned away because their ailments aren’t easily diagnosed.  Let us put light around medical providers who lack compassion for the sick.  Let us put light around the people of color who are unable to ask for pain medications without being accused of drug seeking.  Let us put light around the women who are unable to ask for care without being accused of having mental health problems.  And let us put light around the medical providers who are doing their very best to help people in spite of being overworked and under-supplied.

Let us put light around a political system that divides a nation, divides families, and divides friends.  Let us put light around those who want to vote, but cannot.  Let us put light around the bullies that assume they know better.  Let us put light around those that hold their thoughts to themselves in order to keep the peace.

Let us put light around the LGBTQ+ community.  Let us put light around a society that condemns people for their sexual preference or gender identity.  Let us put light around the victims of hate crimes.  Let us put light around Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered because he was gay.  Let us put light around those who hate gay and transgender people, for surely they suffer too.

And finally, let us put light around ourselves.  Remember that you are always your first priority because you are a member of the human race and inherently deserving of your own love.  Embrace yourself, for your relationship with you is the most important relationship in your life.

 

How to Combat the Stress of Isolation through the GRAPES Approach to Self Care

This has been a hard morning.  I woke up with a headache after a night of fitful sleep and bad dreams.  Everything seems to be going wrong.  A good friend of mine is moving away.  My job is changing in ways that make me question whether it continues to be a viable way for me to make a living, and my apartment seems to get smaller and lonelier every day.

COVID-19 quarantine is exhausting, and yet I have grave concerns about the possible health ramifications of re-opening.  There’s an odd push-pull in my heart as to which direction we should go.

Yesterday was a big social day for me by 2020 standards.  I saw two friends and got my first haircut since the pandemic began, which felt AMAZING!

After the haircut, I met my friend, Jessica, at the mall and we had dinner together.  The restaurant was seating people every other table so that there was a lot of space between us.  The waiter wore a mask, so we couldn’t see her face.  She gave us a disposable paper menu and a pencil to mark our orders, and asked us to deposit the menu on a tray at the table next to us instead of taking our orders directly.  It was a strangely isolating dining experience.  After eating, Jessica and I were planning to do some shopping, but we found that the stores were all closed by 7:30pm–a situation we hadn’t been expecting.

When I got home, I felt depleted, and went to bed early even though I had things that I’d planned to accomplish before sleeping–like writing this blog post!  It was exciting to go out into the world again after months of quarantine, and yet the world’s jarring strangeness made me sad.

As I lay in bed wanting to sleep, but too overwhelmed to do so, I started thinking about the nature of isolation.

We’ve been sheltering in place for months for the health of the community for months, but isolation is so difficult and painful for human beings that it is often used as punishment.  

  • Children are sent to their rooms or to time out when they have misbehaved.
  • People get banished when their behavior is so poor that the community can’t tolerate them anymore.
  • Inmates are placed in solitary confinement when they act out.

I think that this isolation has felt a lot like punishment for many, which explains some of the weird ways in which people have reacted.

Isolation can lead to depression and anxiety, which can lead to more depression and anxiety in a self-sustaining feedback loop.  In this climate of fear, many people have developed varying degrees of agoraphobia–the fear of leaving the house–and with good reason.

However, depression and anxiety aren’t the only possible negative effects of isolation.  There are serious physical health problems caused by isolation as well.  

According to the article, “Social Isolation Negatively Affects Mental and Physical Health–Here’s What You Can Do to Stay Healthy,” by Kelly Burch, social isolation can lead to cognitive decline, heart problems and a weakened immune system.  It can also cause a 30% increase in the risk of coronary artery disease and stroke.  

Social isolation negatively affects mental and physical health — here’s what you can do to stay healthy by Kelly Burch

The culprit here is stress.  When people are stressed, their bodies secrete adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that tell their nervous systems that they are in danger.  The nervous system then tries to save the body by telling it to run, fight or freeze.  This is a completely involuntary reaction, like breathing.  If we were being chased by lions, this response would probably save our lives, and then when we were safe again, our bodies would go back to normal.

However, in the case of isolation, there isn’t any physical threat to run from, so the stress never dissipates, and our bodies constantly think that we’re in danger, keeping us flooded with fight or flight hormones.

It’s not too difficult to understand why a constant state of fight or flight could lead to anxiety.  It’s a little more complicated, though, with physical damage to body.  In essence, what happens is that our bodies conserve the energy that they would be spending on repairs to our heart walls or stomach linings in a relaxed state, and spend that energy instead on the fight, flight, freeze response.  So if we’re in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze, our bodies never do necessary minor repairs, leading to extensive damage over time.

For this reason, it’s extremely important to do things every day to lower your stress level.

I highly recommend using a structured approach to self care in order to intentionally make deposits into your own emotional bank account.  Otherwise, it’s much too easy to become depleted, which leads to increased stress.  The structure that I like to use is known as GRAPES, which is an acronym for:

G – Gentle to self

R – Relaxation

A – Accomplishments

P – Pleasure

E – Exercise

S – Social

By getting a little bit from each category of self care into your day, you’re well on your way to inoculating yourself against stressors such as isolation.

Gentle to self means doing things to treat yourself kindly.  A great resource for self kindness is Kristin Neff’s work on self compassion. Kristin Neff’s Self Compassion Website.  Other great ways to be gentle to self include meditation, rest, taking a bubble bath, and avoiding sources of negativity–such as the news.

Relaxation is a self care component that many Americans feel guilty allowing themselves.  In American culture the emphasis is on doing instead of being, but the act of being is an extremely important part of self care.  If you examine your daily activities and find that you’re short on relaxation, I give you permission to take more time for leisure.  It’s not laziness.  Rest time is time when our bodies are calm enough to do those little repairs that we need for optimal physical health.  So, please, take naps.  Listen to beautiful music.  Lay in a hammock.  It’s good for you.

Accomplishments are important too, of course.  We all need to feel that we have purpose in our lives.  Without purpose, humans tend to fall into a terrible state of meaninglessness.  However, it’s important to know that accomplishing things doesn’t necessarily mean going to work.  It can mean completing a creative project, or cooking a wonderful meal, or practicing a new skill.  Do your best to make your accomplishments meaningful and life-affirming for you.

Pleasure is an extremely underrated component of self care.  It seems to me that America’s Puritan heritage has led to a mistrust of pleasure as somehow inappropriate.  However, pleasure is good for you.  It makes people happy, and releases oxytocin and opiates, the feel good hormones.  We need happiness.  Without it life is bleak.  So do things that feel good to you.  They are important and meaningful.  Dance.  Laugh.  Hug.  Eat delicious food.  Get a massage.  Sit in the sun.  Surround yourself with beautiful smells.

Exercise is the single most effective thing you can do to increase your happiness.  This is no exaggeration.  Scientific studies have shown that 30 minutes of cardio daily is equal to, or even more effective, than an antidepressant in improving mood.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to go out and get a gym membership and start lifting weights and running on treadmills, although that’s a great option if you enjoy that.  I recommend finding your fun as the best way to create an exercise regimen that’s sustainable.  If it’s fun, you’ll keep doing it.  If it’s not, it just feels like a chore.  So, if you enjoy dancing, then dance.  If you enjoy being outside, maybe you should take up hiking or walking in the park.  If you enjoy mindful movement, then maybe meditation or Tai Chi or for you.

Social is a tough one right now.  Things are starting to open up a little bit as we move to the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, but life is still a sea of face masks and closed businesses.  I really miss hugs.  However, you still can get your social self care in doing small things like taking a walk and waving at people that pass.  (Yes. I’m that weirdo, and you can be too).  Meeting friends in open-air settings is good too.  There are many ways to see people virtually, and I think that they can be helpful in moderation, but I also think that they can be confusing to our nervous systems if over-used.  They create a cognitive dissonance.  Our minds think that we saw someone, but our bodies didn’t get any energy or pheromones and feel just as isolated as they did before the Zoom meeting or FaceTime call.  Still, seeing people’s faces via computer screens is better than not seeing them at all.

A great way to take care of yourself, and to combat the stress of isolation, is to make a plan each day for how you’re going to get a little taste of each self care component above.    Both your mental and physical health will thank you.

One last thought.  Taking care of yourself is not selfishness.  Many people have been brought up to believe that it is.  However, I submit to you that the best gift that you can give to others is a happy and well-cared-for self.  When you feel good, you’re more pleasant to be around, and you have more energy to give to others.  By being open-hearted to yourself, you’ll be better equipped to be open-hearted to others.  And besides, you’re totally worth it, just because you’re you.